Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Thief (Books, Part 1)

Two people explicitly requested this post, making it my most popularly demanded post by a factor of infinity. Not bad, Kyle and Daniel. Not bad at all.

Anyway: "10 Books That Have Stuck With You." The list itself is down at the bottom. Go on, you can look.

Some of those--Thursday, other Chesterton stuff, LOTR, Lewis stuff, Job--won't surprise anyone who knows me even a little bit.

And a few of my Torrey friends probably anticipated On the Unity of Christ, maybe even The Idea of a University. I've even talked a lot about Barth and his awesomely phrased theology.

So I thought the first post would be about the one NONE of you saw coming (except maybe Anna): Megan Whalen Turner's The Thief.

I've had this book for a long, long time. I remember reading it for the first time, but I don't remember when that was. I was young: it must have been before I was even in high school. I would estimate that I've read it 20 times, at least.

It's not amazingly well-written, grammatically speaking. Many of the sentences are unwieldy monsters, and reading it out loud, you find yourself regularly substituting one word for another to improve the flow. That said, the story still captivates me.

The story takes place in a rough imitation of ancient Greece. It centers around a thief (Gen), who is released from prison to steal a mythical stone. It is a stone of legend, rumored to have been dipped in the waters of immortality and to grant whoever holds it eternal life--but that's not why he's stealing it. Few people believe in that stuff anymore.

The actual reason is much more pragmatic. It's the ancient law of a neighboring country, Eddis, that whoever holds the stone rules the country: The king of Sounis wants to rule Eddis as well, so the stone (if it exists) must be stolen from its rumored secret temple (if it can be found).

There are a lot of things I love about this book. The lighthearted humor, the vivid detail, the stunningly well-done 1st-person perspective, the constant misdirection...but everything that I love most about it comes at the end.


For the entire journey, nobody is under any illusions that the stone is anything more than a stone. Although almost everybody is religious, Gen declares that, "It's just religion. They like to go up to the temple on feast days and pretend that there is some god who wants the worthless sacrificial bits of a cow, and the people get to eat the rest. It's just an excuse to kill a cow." Nobody objects. It's just religion.

This is a story entirely devoid of the supernatural, right up until the last few chapters. Because it turns out that the gods are real. Really real. Gen has a conversation with the god of thieves, he steals the Stone from the chief goddess herself, and the Stone keeps him alive when he should have died.

The gods are real. 

But the best thing about this book is this one passage. This one, solitary passage. I'm going to show it to you, spoilers be damned. Gen is recovering from being stabbed, and in the throws of a fever, he is visited by Eugenides, the god of thieves, who had once lived life as a mortal, and even had a brother named Lyopidus. Lyopidus had burned in a forest fire as Eugenides tried to carry him to safety.

"I said that if only I could have died when the soldier pulled the sword out, I wouldn't be bothered by my conscience. The god beside me was silent, and the silence stretched out from my bedside through the castle and, it seemed, throughout the world as I remembered that Lyopidus had burned and died, while Eugenides had not.  
After countless empty heartbeats, Eugenides spoke again from a  distance. 'His wife died in the winter. His three children live with their aunt in Ela.'"

I read this before high school, before Biola, before Torrey. I read this before I read Cyril's On the Unity of Christ, or Barth's The Way of the Son of God. I read it before I understood what made Christmas and Easter so totally insane.

Before all of that, this book showed me that there is something strange and terrible about the grief of a god. The strangeness of a god in the flesh, of a god who understands what it is to be human...these were things I had not yet realized. The grief of the gods can silence the world...and one gets the feeling that the world should be silent while the god ponders his grief.

And now, probably a dozen years later, I can look at it as Lewis does in Till We Have Faces:
"Only this I know. This age of ours will one day be the distant past. And the Divine Nature can change the past. Nothing is yet in its true form."

Even though it is but recent fiction, it reads like myth: The kind of myth that Lewis imagines as being changed, renewed, and redeemed into its true form. A form reflecting and glorifying the God who became man, and was acquainted with grief.

That is why The Thief has stuck with me. If you get the opportunity, you should definitely read it.

This was fun. I'll probably be doing more of this for other books: Let me know if you have requests!

The List:

1: The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton

2: (Everything else by Chesterton: Manalive, Orthodoxy, The Ball and the Cross)

3: On the Unity of Christ by Cyril of Alexandria

4: The Way of the Son of God into the Far Country by Karl Barth

5: The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien

6: CS Lewis section (Space Trilogy, Chron. of Narnia, Abolition of Man, Till We Have Faces)

7: The book of Job

8: The book of Ecclesiastes

9: The Idea of a University by John Henry Newman

10: The Thief, by Megan Whalen Turner


  1. The Thief didn't make it onto my list of 10, but that's probably because it sits somewhere outside my immediate consciousness, always lurking, but jumping out at random moments more frequently than most other books I read when I was 9. Nancy Farmer's The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm is similar for me. They come up in conversation, or I make connections with things that are happening irl more often than your run-of-the-mill middle grade/YA books. The Thief is really interesting that way because I know many others who have similar thoughts about it, but most people tend to forget about it when it comes to lists of "favorites" or "most impactful".

    Did you ever read the sequels to The Thief? I didn't, partly because I had moved on in my reading by the time they were published, partly because I didn't want to ruin it. Like the recent sequel to The Giver. Why would you (Lowry) do that!? The ending was one of the most important parts of The Giver.

    1. No, I never read the sequels. I read the descriptions, and it seemed like they just completely did away with everything that made "The Thief" so unforgettable. This isn't a book that needed a sequel.

  2. Nice. Thanks for telling about The Theif.

    1. No problem, Daniel! I'm glad you enjoyed it.